Most Salt Lake City residents want less stringent liquor laws in the city, a new poll shows.
Fifty-six percent of those residents surveyed said they favored changing the laws to make alcohol easier to buy and consume in the city. But city residents who identified themselves as Republicans and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints don't want the City Council or the Legislature to loosen the liquor laws, a Dan Jones & Associates survey for the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV shows.
The survey of 403 Salt Lake City registered voters found that 38 percent of those surveyed want liquor laws to remain as they are; 6 percent said they didn't know. The poll had a margin of error of 5 percent.
The finalists in the mayoral race Democrat Ralph Becker and Republican Dave Buhler say they want to loosen alcohol laws. But neither candidate is now ready to call for major liquor law reforms like liquor by the drink.
Most Utah liquor laws are set by the Legislature, and the state's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control oversees the sales of wines, heavy beers and hard liquor such as vodka and whiskey. Those bottled products are only sold in state-owned and state-run liquor stores. Adults 21 and older can buy 3.2 percent alcoholic beer and some other low-alcohol beverages in grocery stores.
Adults can also consume liquor in state-licensed restaurants and private clubs. The state licenses 3.2 percent beer taverns, which also must have local government approval.
Buhler and Becker say the City Council should change city zoning ordinance to allow more than two alcohol outlets per linear city block. Currently, only two alcohol outlets can be on each block face, on either side of the road. Restaurants with alcohol licenses are not included in this zoning ordinance.
In addition, both men say the city should look at the minimum-distance laws for liquor sales near churches, parks, libraries and schools. That rule is in both state law and city ordinance. "Some charter schools have not been able to locate where they want" because of a nearby liquor outlet, Buhler said. And it makes little sense to stop a restaurant like Red Lobster from locating near a park, he added.
Becker said one liquor outlet "had to do mathematical gymnastics" to open across the street from the downtown Salt Lake City Library. Requiring such gymnastics "is kind of silly."
Buhler also wants the Legislature to loosen overall state liquor law. His plan is to have lawmakers allow cities and towns to decide themselves how many restaurant liquor licenses should be allowed within their jurisdictions. Currently, the ABC department uses a complicated population formula to decide how many restaurant liquor licenses are allowed statewide.
"We can make responsible liquor law changes without changing the character of Salt Lake City," Buhler said. "We are not Las Vegas, never will be and don't want to be."
Buhler, a former GOP state senator and a current eight-year member of the City Council, said he helped pass an alcohol law during his time in the Senate in the mid-1990s. Buhler's bill allowed state liquor stores to start accepting credit cards and checks. Previously, only cash was allowed.
Another of his alcohol bills failed. It would have abolished, or made much easier, the current requirement that a person buy a private-club membership before consuming alcohol in the club.
Buhler criticized Becker, who has been in the House for 11 years, most of it as minority leader, for not even running one liquor bill.
"Now he wants to change some liquor laws," Buhler said. "Where has he been for the last 11 years? Again, I'm the doer, and he's the dreamer," said Buhler, quoting his own mayoral campaign theme.
Becker said he's a political realist. Liquor law in Utah is not going to be made by a Democratic non-LDS legislator, especially one in minority leadership, he said. "Liquor law changes are made by Republican leadership," said Becker, and most, if not all, of those Republican legislators are also members of the LDS Church.
Becker declined to take a position on several possible changes to liquor law, saying generally he wants responsible and reasonable changes that protect the city's character while still being more hospitable to visitors. He added he's willing to look at all ideas.
One rule Becker described as "antiquated and bizarre" deals with having only one drink in front of you at a time. "I hear about this (rule) all the time: People say why can't they order and get a second glass of wine before they finish the first while they are eating dinner. Now you have to drain the last drop before you can get another glass."
Currently, a private club may charge as little as $4 for a temporary membership. Tourists and skiers buy short-term memberships so they can use the club to either just drink liquor, or drink liquor and buy food.
Buhler said he'd like the Legislature to look at changing that membership requirement.
Allowing someone to go into a private club, not buy a membership, and buy a drink is basically allowing sales of liquor by the drink something leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have steadfastly opposed for years.
Another alternative suggested by retiring Mayor Rocky Anderson, who has been a severe critic of Utah liquor law, is to allow a tourist to buy a temporary private club membership that is honored at any club.
"If a tourist checks into a hotel and there can buy a membership to all downtown private clubs, that sounds like it may be a very good idea," Buhler said. Becker declined comment.
While saying the Legislature should give cities home rule on restaurant liquor licenses, Buhler stopped short of saying cities should also have the power to decide how many private clubs they can have. Nearly a third of all private clubs in the state are located in Salt Lake City. "I just want to start with restaurants," Buhler said. Becker said he doesn't oppose Buhler's home rule idea.
"We need to be hospitable to those who drink (alcohol) responsibly and obey our liquor and traffic rules," said Buhler, a member of the LDS Church who does not drink alcohol himself.
"I don't drink much myself," Becker said. Becker said his goal isn't to make liquor easier to find and consume but to use alcohol consumption as one piece in trying to create a vibrant downtown. It would be like other cities that have places to eat, drink and dance grouped in close proximity "and have a street scene and atmosphere."
The city's liquor ordinances aren't friendly and make that scene hard to come by, Becker said.
Opposition to more lenient liquor law clearly breaks out along political and religious lines, Jones found in the poll. Only 19 percent of city Republicans favored looser liquor laws, while 76 percent of them opposed more liberal liquor laws. Only 10 percent of LDS Salt Lakers favored looser liquor laws, while 72 percent of LDS Church members in the city opposed looser laws.
Just the opposite is found among Democratic and independent non-Mormons, Jones found. Nine out of 10 Salt Lakers who said they belong to no religion want looser liquor laws. Jones found that 83 percent of Democrats want looser liquor laws in the city, while 61 percent of political independents want looser laws.
Buhler said when he was in the Legislature he did not ask the LDS Church's permission to run either of his liquor bills.
However, he said, "on alcohol, you're naive if you don't talk to those folks" leaders of the LDS Church "because they have a real interest in, and some influence" on the issue.Accordingly, Buhler said he called the church's lobbyist to tell him about the credit-card bill change when it was being considered by the Legislature. The man looked at the bill and called him back later to say the church would not oppose this bill. Church opposition is almost a certain kiss of death for a liquor bill before the 104-member part-time Legislature, where about 80 percent are LDS Church members.